Dark to Light (How to make your pastels stand out)

In my first pastel class, I remember learning a basic method of blocking in darks and lights when we started a painting.  Later, the teacher mentioned that pastels are meant to be painted with lights on top of darks. I always seemed to run through my light-colored pastels about twice as quickly as I used my darks, mostly because I felt like I lost my lights as I worked.

What I eventually learned was how important those darks were in establishing contrast.

"Jardin" 9 x 12 Chalk pastel on flat canvas
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In the painting above, using pastels dipped in water gave them a darker finish, which helped highlight those lighter areas of the piece.  In the following painting, you can see how I got a little too excited about the color and had to work on the darks and lights to rein it back in:
Stage 1: Woo hoo!  Color!  Umm, where are the darks?

Stage 2: More darks added

Stage 3: Adding lights on top of darks makes the pastels more effective
"Baywood Boats" 9 x 12  Chalk pastel on flat canvas
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Initially, it's easy to get carried away with color when using pastels.  The chalk looks so vibrant sitting there in the box, and has a dazzling effect when applied to paper.  If you're a painter who likes to focus mostly on color, then you're set!  If you're like me, and you need a little more value and definition to achieve your style, it's better to start out with those lights and darks before you jump into color.  Of course, I need to be reminded of this fairly often, as color scheme is the first thing I think of when I start a painting.

I made the "Baywood Boats" painting from a photo I took in Baywood Park, CA.  It's a tiny little place we like to stop on the trip between Los Osos and Morro Bay.  There's just a hint of the water in the corner of this piece, but there's actually a nice place to sit and gaze out at the bay if you're in the mood to relax and listen to the water gently lapping at the shore.

Here's another example of using light on top of dark with pastel; this time I thought ahead and put more darks in the underpainting:
Underpainting: lots of dark


"Swamp Tree" 8 x 10 Chalk pastel on canvas
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All of these pieces were completed with pastels dipped into water, or pressed directly into a wet surface.  It's important to let the pastel dry completely before adding that top layer of dry chalk, otherwise you'll end up with mud colors.  Fixative in between layers (on dry pastel) helps preserve the darks too.

If you like these pieces, check out more on my fine art website!
I'm now on Pinterest!


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